Interviews

Carley Moore and James Polchin in conversation

James Polchin. Photo: Greg Salvatori; Carley Moore. Photo: Amy Touchette

James Polchin’s new book, Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall, uncovers queer true-crime stories from a time when newspapers often wouldn’t print the word homosexual. Polchin recently met with Carley Moore, the author of The Not Wives, a new novel about queer intimacy set in Occupy-era New York, to talk sex and politics. Not long after the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprisings, the two authors reflected on narratives that don’t fit the usual categories, nodding to writers who have devised innovative ways to portray how power and pleasure collide. — The Editors

CARLEY MOORE: We’ve talked about how, in some ways, Indecent Advances is a collection of grief that you have expertly and vividly stitched together.

JAMES POLCHIN: Yeah, when you said, “It’s really a book of grief,” it made me think about how these cases and these murders have been lost to history and how the book is about making them available. This idea of grief is fascinating because it’s about our own relationship to history. By recovering these cases, we are witnessing them through a contemporary lens that I think is really important, both for the victims, and for the family and friends of these people.

CM: Your book came out around the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. Stonewall was a riot and a radical act, but so much of Pride now seems to be about celebration and joy. It strikes me that you can’t always get to joy and celebration until you actually give people a space to mourn or grieve—or, actually, those things could be happening next to each other. But it’s hard sometimes, historically, to do both those things.

JP: For me, in writing this, there was a lot of grief, but also a lot of anger that kind of couples with it. I think you’re right, there is a simmering foundation upon which celebration happens, but I would hope that there’s always a sense of grief and anger underneath. Does this coupling play out in your book?

CM: The book is set at Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011, and the three main characters’ convergence at Occupy is definitely political. But when I visited the park, which I did quite a bit, I was struck by how fun it was, too, or how utopian it tried to be. It had the people’s library, it had the people’s kitchen, it had music, and there was continuous dancing. There was a lot of work going on, too, but I like to think about activism as having pleasure in it.

And the book is also really, like, a dirty, fun, book! It’s pretty sex-positive and it’s pretty queer, and all of these characters are on a sexual journey. One thing the interviewer from the Seattle Gay News got right, you know, he asked me if the book was erotica. And I said that I didn’t want to steal anything from erotica writers—who I think are so talented—but sure! I really wanted to write the fun, sexy parts of the book in a way so that women and queer people could be centered in their pleasure.

JP: Are there queer writers who have helped you think about those dynamics of politics and pleasure?

CM: Yes, and we’ve made a little pile of books here. I have Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor, a great novel about Paul, who can turn into Polly, in sort of a magical realism move. And Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Sketchtasy, which deals with homophobia in Boston in the 1990s but also depicts a lot of pelasure from drug taking and sex, and shows the complicated things happening around sex work.

I remember at one of your events you were saying you hoped that in creating the book, family members and other people could start to have some pieces of the puzzles of these men’s lives.

JP: Right. And I did try to tell more of their stories here, from published reports, and from what other details I could research, because in the press, the story of the victim was very limited. I wanted to convey the compelling nature of these stories, of the victims and perpetrators, and of the social life where they met, and what that world was, but I didn’t want to replicate the kind of sensationalism of the newspapers.

This makes me think about your own storytelling: how you found a structure to tell a story that is so beautifully poetic at times, and so dreamlike, at other times, but is constantly anchored to the realities of a time and place.

CM: My first genre is poetry, and my writing is always bound up in imagery and beautiful lines. In the book, there are husbands and wives sections, which I think of as sort of trances in which we get to hear all the different things that people think of wives and not-wives, and children and not-children, and husbands. Those were really fun to write because they’re long lists or riffs on all the different things that the wives are doing. When I was in Seattle this weekend, I started to think about them as rasps in a musical score—places where you come out of the story a little bit, and you can hang out.

I really wanted to tell the story of these three women, and I really wanted to have a sexual mom at the center of things. I think that parents are sexual beings, too, and mothers, especially, get sort of desexualized. You’re pushing a stroller and you’re breastfeeding, and it’s like: “Oh my god, you’re so gross.” I think it’s still tricky to be a queer parent, because you desexualize yourself almost immediately if you admit to being a parent at a gay bar.

JP: There is a lot of sex in this book, and there’s all this politcs going on at the same time and of course, for queer citizens, sex has always been politicized—our sex is politics, it’s almost inescapable.

CM: I find myself wanting to make a bunch of claims about queer people in honor of LGBTQ History Month, like, queer people are better at sex, we love sex more—we’ve always had to radicalize ourselves. Also, often in queer spaces, there just has to be more communication because of the complicated things that people desire.

But I don't think I can get away with all those claims. But I do think . . . so . . . what were we talking about? We're talking about sex.

JP: Sex! And the politics, right?

CM: We have Audre Lorde in the pile too, Sister Outsider. So much of radical feminists’ intersectional thinking, which she’s really a foremother of, is that there’s an erotics of politics and also there’s an erotics in everyday life. I’m paraphrasing her here—but if you can have as much pleasure in putting together a bookcase as in marching. There’s something really political and empowering about taking that back.

So there’s that piece, but also, this is all just very matter-of-fact. So many of us are having great sex, or mediocre sex, or, like, complicated sex or poly sex, and I just wanted to write it as it is. Some of the sex in the book is really orgasmic and great for the characters and sometimes they’re just random hookups and bad dates. I wish sex, in this country in particular, could just be more everyday.

JP: I think that’s key to the story you’re telling. Sex really feels very much a part of their lives, not hidden or dramatic or as a plot device.

CM: And what if sex could have been everyday for the men in your book? How radical would that have been? And I’m sure it was, often, but what if everyday queer sex could enter the mainstream and be accepted as just sex. What if we didn’t even have to put “queer” before it.

JP: In my research, it struck me how many of the men in these crime stories were married and with kids. I struggled to figure out how to name these victims. Most of them lived their lives pretty much in the norm of a straight world. Whether the men were bisexual or pansexual is not clear. What is clear is the situtation that they were in at the time of their murder. Where they hooked up with somebody, another man, in an apartment or hotel room.

I write in the intro about one case in particular: A man in his sixties who had been married for many years came into New York City to buy theater tickets for his wedding anniversary. At some point, he met a sailor—or somebody dressed like a sailor—and went to a rooming house with him and was murdered by the man he brought with him. That story—his story—wouldn’t nessecarily make it into queer history because of his being a sixty-something man married to a woman. But, most likely, he didn’t do this just that once in his life. His case made me think about where we place such stories in queer history.

CM: I mean, as a bisexual woman, or pansexual woman, when I read that, I was like, “Oh! So much of this is actually about bi men.” We won’t really know, of course. But I loved thinking about your book as a clandestine bi-history book.

JP: I use this word queer to define these men in my book, but I think now is an interesting moment where we’re trying to think about the multiple sexual expereinces historically and contemporarily, right? And how to account for that multiplicity and how to represent it.

CM: And what do we do with that—how do we acknoweldge stories that don’t fit with the lesbian and gay coming-out narrative? Or people who really don’t want to ever enter the mainstream? It’s amazing that gay people can legally marry, but some will always reject that institution. In thinking about stories that don’t really fit, my hope is that we will continue to have more of them.

JP: I like that idea as a connecting thread to our two books: telling stories that perhaps don’t easily fit the narratives of sexual minorities that we have right now. Whether they’re political narratives or even personal stories.

Carley Moore is a clinical professor of writing and contemporary culture and creative production in the global liberal studies program at New York University and a senior associate at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking.

James Polchin is a writer, cultural historian, and a clinical professor in liberal studies at New York University. He is also an instructor at the Creative Nonfiction Foundation.